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Department of Food Science - The Search for Sweet: The tricky technology of sugar substitutes

Hal Harris's picture
Tue, 05/02/2006 - 02:00 -- Hal Harris

In 2005, the average American consumed about 140 pounds of sugar, which is about 50% more than the average German or Frenchman and nine times as much as the Chinese (see Hal's Pick for December, 2005). We also consumed about twenty four pounds of sugar substitutes per person, which translates to even more sweetness than the natural substance. Why do we crave sugar, and what is there about certain compounds that makes them sweet? Saccharin may have been discovered by accident (as was sucralose), but the search for other sugar substitutes is systematic and highly competitive. The most recent to hit the market is called Neotame, which can be found in Ice Breaker candies, SunnyD reduced sugar orange drink, and Mr. Fizz sodas (sold at WalMart). More important scientifically and with equal or greater potential for commerce is the understanding of taste and flavor in general. It seems likely that "potentiators" - compounds that accentuate sweetness, bittness, or umami (the savory taste of protein) will be found increasingly in our food. Is this obese society better off eating less sugar, but replacing it with products of the laboratory? Many of these enhancers are effective in amounts so small that they need not even appear on labels, except anonymously in the "natural and artificial flavors" category.

Pick Attribution: 

Burkhard Bilger

Publication Date: 
Monday, May 22, 2006